Musings on Universalism
From the category of “interesting pastoral experiences” comes the following email I received last week:
I am seeking a universalist belief church where people believe that Jesus came to earth to tell people about universal salvation, not eternal damnation? Is this such a church? I have gone to yours before, but never did understand what the belief system is at this church?
Thank you for your time—God bless,
Hmm, how to respond? It’s one of those questions that sounds almost artificial—like some hypothetical case-study from a theology textbook. Well, resisting the urge to launch into an in-depth discussion of the merits and shortcomings of universalism or the biblical position on matters of eschatology, I briefly (and politely) informed my interlocutor that while we believe that Jesus did come to earth to make salvation available to all, we are not a universalist church, and directed them to the Mennonite Brethren confession of faith.
At one level, it’s easy to dismiss emails like these as curious anomalies and not much more. I would guess that the number of people confusing a Mennonite Brethren church with a universalist one would be a rather small one. But the experience got me thinking.
I would suspect that many of us have, at times, wished that universalism was true. The doctrine of hell, eternal punishment, annihilation, or however else you conceive of the idea of some kind of post-mortem judgment is probably one of the less popular Christian beliefs out there. I know that I have certainly found universalism at least superficially appealing at various points along the way. It’s not pleasant to think of judgment after all, especially when that judgment is permanent. If God is a God of love and he loves us all equally and seeks the redemption of all (1 Tim. 2:3-4), how can any miss out?
First, a caveat: I’m going to leave aside what the Bible explicitly has to say on the matter. As is the case in most matters of importance, Bible verses can be produced to support both sides of the issue, and “what the Bible says” will depend in large part on the presuppositions and interpretive strategies that one brings to the question. This is not to say I think the Bible is unimportant. Far from it. It’s simply to say that appealing to “what the Bible says” might not solve anything. “The Bible says” very different things to the very different people who actually care what the Bible says or consider it authoritative in any sense. And for those who don’t? Well, appealing to the Bible won’t be of much use.
So what I will do is tell you why I am not a universalist. There are two main (closely-related) reasons:
- Universalism has too low a view of evil
- Universalism has too low a view of human beings.
First, if nothing and nobody gets condemned, and salvation is offered to all irrespective of their acknowledging either a need for it or a recognition of its origin, then genuine evil seems not to be taken seriously enough. There are certain deeds, as Peter Berger has put it, that simply cry out to heaven for justice. Everyone can, I’m sure, think of their own (least) favourite example of evils—whether on the grand historical scale or personal grievances—for which punishment seems of some kind simply seems non-negotiable. Whatever else you may think about the idea of divine judgment, at the very least it purports to take evil seriously and to address the evils of history.
Similarly, human beings and the choices they make seem not to be taken seriously enough in a universalistic universe. If everyone is thought to come around to the right side eventually, whether by divine coercion and at the expense of human freedom (e.g., Friedrich Schleiermacher) or by divine suggestive influence through the exercise of human freedom (e.g., John Hick), the terrible human ability to reject God and to reject the good—to say “no!”—is not honoured. Divine judgment takes human beings and the choices they make seriously enough to honour them permanently.
Obviously much more could be said about universalism, but this would be the beginning of my response to the question of why, much as I might like to on certain days, I cannot believe in the Jesus the person who emailed me was looking for. I absolutely think there is a wideness to God’s mercy that we cannot even fathom (I can’t help but recall the following quote, cited by Miroslav Volf: “I am not an universalist, but God may be.”); however a world without any kind of divine judgment seems implausible and undesirable to me for the reasons cited above. I think that human beings and the choices they make are too important to God for universalism to be true.